Parliamentary recess: who took more days off?

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Parliament stands adjourned until 27 March 2018. The last sitting took place on Friday 15 December. This three-and-a-half month parliamentary recess follows the three months our MPs already took off from 19 July to 24 October 2017. Critics find these ‘holidays’ excessively lengthy. But is the Alliance Lepep of Pravind Jugnauth actually taking longer recesses than the Alliance de l’Avenir of Navin Ramgoolam from 2010 to 2014? Weekly compares parliamentary recesses under the two regimes and shows how different other parliamentary regimes are to ours.

MPs have been on parliamentary leave since 15 December 2017. The National Assembly will next sit on 27 March 2018. That is 102 days where no debates will be held in parliament. In the Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM)–Muvman Liberater’s (ML’s) Alliance Lepep’s third year in power, parliament has been in recess for 199 days. Compared to the Labour Party– Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate’s (PMSD’s) Alliance de l’Avenir’s third year of reign and its overall 186 days of recesses. That’s 13 days off extra for the Alliance Lepep.

We gathered data on the parliamentary recesses for the period 2010-14 and 2014-18 and produced the tables below.

In the first year of the Alliance de l’Avenir, parliament was on holidays for 179 days, while during Alliance Lepep’s first year, no debates were held for 220 days. In each regime’s second year, parliament was on leave for 216 days under the Alliance de l’Avenir as opposed to 202 days under the Alliance Lepep. It is the only comparative year where parliament had shorter ‘holidays’ (14 days) under the Alliance Lepep than under the Alliance de l’Avenir. Finally, no debates were held for 185 days under the Labour Party–PMSD coalition over the 2012-13 session as compared to 199 days – assuming parliament will resume on 27 March next – under the MSM–ML coalition over the corresponding 2017–18 session.

Sanjit Teelock, former deputy speaker, sheds light on the timing of parliamentary recess in Mauritius. “Traditionally, parliament is ‘on holiday’ twice a year. First, from the end of December to usually a week after Independence Day in March, which coincides with religious festivals and other public holidays in January and February where parliament wouldn’t sit anyway. Then, from the end of July to early September, which follows intense budget debates in June,” he explains.

Teelock however disagrees that our MPs are in recess too much. “Parliament doesn’t involve MPs only; it’s also about ministers. The cabinet and ministers start preparing parliamentary answers at least two days prior to a sitting. Parliamentary holidays actually give them breathing space to take care of their ministries,” posits the former deputy speaker. Ordinary backbenchers and other MPs also then devote more time to their constituency, contends Teelock.

Milan Meetarbhan, author of Constitutional Law of Mauritius: Constitution of Mauritius with Commentaries, states that the actual question is not whether parliament is in recess for too long, but rather what is the nature of the duties undertaken by parliament. “Parliament’s function is twofold: legislative first by passing laws, and second, to hold the executive, i.e. government, accountable,” says the former ambassador to the United Nations, before adding, “Abroad, bills are examined before select committees mainly; it isn’t the case in Mauritius. Here, the role of backbenchers has become insignificant. The parliamentary majority will simply ‘rubber-stamp’ bills from the government. Government backbenchers play a role too in holding the government accountable, not only opposition MPs.” For Meetarbhan the nature of parliamentary business should thus be better defined or even ‘upgraded’. Every MP should play a more constructive role in the law-making process.

Meetarbhan nonetheless concedes, “In a vibrant democracy, more time should be devoted to parliamentary business. Parliament could be considered a mere ritual in a democracy which the executive must reluctantly go through as it is ‘part of the game’. Accordingly, the latter would like to limit to the bare minimum time devoted to this ritual”, although, he concludes, “this obviously does not promote democratic constitutions and their functioning.”

What about other parliamentary systems though? In the UK’s House of Commons, on which our National Assembly is based, MPs also have recess dates. However, recess periods are shorter but more frequent than in Mauritius. For the 2017–18 session for instance, the House of Commons was adjourned for 25 days from 14 September to 9 October 2017 for the traditional conference season where political parties hold their annual autumn gatherings. The House of Commons will also be adjourned for 18 days for Easter from 29 March to 16 April 2018 and for Whitsun, or Pentecost, the eighth Sunday after Easter which marks the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples. For the 2017- 18 session, the House of Commons is expected to be in recess for 142 days overall. However, unlike our National Assembly which sits once a week, the House of Commons sits daily during the week when not in recess.

Closer to us, in South Africa, parliament sits more than once a week too. Parliamentary committees also undertake much more legislative work than in Mauritius, as pointed out by Meetarbhan earlier. A parliamentary session is divided into four terms in South Africa, with the first term starting in January and the fourth term ending in December. In between each term, MPs have ‘constituency periods’ of two to three weeks where parliament does not sit. MPs are then expected to “be available to the public, help solve problems and report back to their constituents on what is happening in parliament” according to the website of the South African parliament. Similar to Mauritius, parliamentary recess or constituency periods are meant to encourage MPs to remain in contact with the people they represent. For 2018, the parliament of South Africa is set to have 79 days of constituency period altogether.

It is clear that our National Assembly sits less often than in other countries like the UK or South Africa. Parliamentary business in Mauritius is also limited to single weekly sessions as opposed to the daily sessions of foreign parliamentary regimes. When it comes to holidays, however, we beat some records!

Fig. 1. Recess dates, number of days for each recess period, and overall number of recess days under the Alliance de l’Avenir regime.
Fig. 2. Recess dates, number of days for each recess period, and overall number of recess days under the Alliance Lepep regime.

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